With the farmers' protest showing no signs of abating, the Centre on Monday night invited agitating farmer unions for talks on December 1, two days ahead of a scheduled meeting. The stir against the new agri-marketing laws appeared to intensify despite a strong defence of the legislation by the government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi who accused the opposition of playing tricks on farmers again through misinformation. The development came a day after the protesting farmers rejected the Centre's offer to start talks as soon as they move to Burari and continued to stay put at Singhu and Tikri borders of the national capital.
"Keeping in view the cold and COVID-19, we have invited leaders of farmer unions for discussion much before the scheduled December 3 meeting," Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar told PTI and urged the farmers to end their stir.
Addressing a press conference on Monday, representatives of agitating farmers said on Monday they have come to Delhi for a "decisive" battle and asked Prime Minister Modi to listen to their "mann ki baat".
Peaceful sit-ins by farmers, mostly from Punjab and Haryana, continued for the fifth day at the Singhu and Tikri borders with no untoward incident reported after Friday's violence, while the numbers of protestors swelled at the Ghazipur border.
"Our demands are non-negotiable," Jagmohan Singh, general secretary Bhartiya Kisan Union (Dakaunda), said addressing a press conference by representatives of farmers at Singhu border.
"We have come here to fight a decisive battle. We have come to Delhi to ask the prime minister to listen to 'mann ki baat' of farmers, else the government and the ruling party will have to pay a heavy price...," he said.
The opposition parties too, stepped up pressure, asking the Centre to "respect the democratic struggle" of the farmers and repeal the laws.
Security was beefed up by the Delhi Police and concrete barriers placed at all borders points connecting the city with Haryana and Uttar Pradesh as the farmers threatened to block all highways to the national capital.
Long queues of vehicles choked the roads as the Delhi Police kept the Singhu and Tikri borders closed and heightened checking at others.
Amid the rancour of protests, farmers were seen performing 'Ardas' (prayer) at the Haryana-Delhi border and distributing 'karah parshad' among the people on Guru Nanak Jayanti.
At dusk, earthen lamps were placed on the barricades by the protesting farmers who exchanged sweets while preparing for another winter night in their tractor-trolleys which have been turned into makeshift shelters.
Many protesters said that they have come prepared for a long haul with rations and other necessities.
During the day, several union ministers and BJP leaders again urged the farmers not to have "misconceptions" about these reforms which, they asserted, have nothing to do with the mechanism of minimum support price (MSP) and 'mandi' that will continue along with the government's purchase of grains.
The prime minister, who was visiting his Lok Sabha constituency Varanasi, too, allayed concerns that MSP and mandi mechanism would be discontinued, even as he attacked the opposition.
"The farmers are being deceived on these historic agriculture reform laws by the same people who have misled them for decades," he said, in an apparent reference to parties that are supporting the protest.
He reiterated that farmers who wanted to follow the old system of trading referring to the mandis' where they can get the MSP, are still free to do so. But the three laws gave them new options to sell for more, he said.
He said whenever new laws are enacted, questions are bound to be asked. But presently a new trend is being seen in the country. The protests are based on creating doubts through misinformation, Modi said at a public gathering.
We must remember that those doing so are the ones who had for decades deceived farmers, he claimed. The MSP used to be declared but very little procurement was done on it, he claimed.
Farmers have faced deceit on MSP, loan waiver schemes, urea and productivity for a long time in the past, he said. He claimed that it is because of this long history of deceit that farmers are again wary as they are seeing the new move in the same manner.
Though the protesting farmers have been adamant about not allowing any political party to use their platform, the opposition has come out in their support. The Congress launched a social media campaign to muster support for the farmers and said its members will extend assistance to the protesters, while the DMK and its allies too issued a statement slamming the government's stand.
"The Modi government has persecuted the farmer - first it brought black laws and then used lathis against them, but it forgot that when the farmer raises his voice, it resonates throughout the country. You also raise your voice against the exploitation of farmers and join the #SpeakUpForFarmers campaign," Rahul Gandhi said in a tweet in Hindi.
A joint statement was issued by DMK president M K Stalin, TNCC chief K S Alagiri, MDMK general secretary Vaiko, CPI(M) state secretary K Balakrishnan, Communist Party of India state secretary R Mutharasan and others slamming the Centre's stand.
"More than 500 farmer unions from across India have rallied on behalf of the country's 62 million farmers. We all strongly condemn the dictatorial, hegemonic BJP government for disregarding this massive rally and stipulating that negotiations will take place only if the farmers go to the Burari ground," it said.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal appealed to the people of Delhi to help the protesters and urged the Centre to hold talks with them at the earliest.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, whose JD(U) is a constituent of the BJP-led government, expressed the hope that the Centre will be able to allay the fears about MSP in its dialogue with the farmers.
"The Centre has proposed to hold talks with the agitating farmers. Once they sit across the table, it will become clear that fears over MSP are unfounded," he told reporters.
Tractor-trolleys have occupied over a 10-km-long stretch along the Ambala-Delhi national highway. Many protesters have cushioned their trolleys with layers of straw and laid mattresses over them to protect them from the cold. Night temperatures over the last few days have been settling at around 9 degrees Celsius.
Among the protesters are men and women aged over 70 years.
Flags of various farmers' outfits from Punjab and Haryana can be seen fluttering atop the tractors, some of which are fitted with loudspeakers and used by the leaders of peasants' bodies to address the gatherings.
Having gathered here in thousands amid the coronavirus pandemic, the farmers claim adverse conditions do not affect them as they are used to various challenges anyway while working in the fields.
Experts warn their agitation could well be a COVID-19 super-spreader as there have been few signs of physical distancing during the protests that started last week with the farmers, banded under various organisations, leaving their homes and moving towards Delhi.
"A protest is a mass gathering and thus from a public health perspective, I would urge protective and preventive behaviour against the spread of coronavirus infection, failing which a superspreading event might set in, cautioned Dr Samiran Panda, head of the Epidemiology and Communicable Diseases division at the Indian Council of Medical Research.
The farmers are protesting against the three laws -- Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020; Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020 and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act 2020 -- that took effect from September 27 after President Ram Nath Kovind's assent.
The farmers have expressed apprehension that the Centre's farm laws would pave the way for the dismantling of the minimum support price system, leaving them at the "mercy" of big corporates.
The government has maintained that the new laws will bring farmers better opportunities and usher in new technologies in agriculture.